In my re-reading of Arthur C. Clarke’s work, I’ve started to come to the conclusion that the two big novels that came at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s – 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama – marked a sea change in Clarke’s writing. After those two novels he was a superstar, known to people both inside and outside science fiction. Rama picked up a fistful of awards, which cemented his place as one of the sf greats. And yet, I can’t help feeling that the quality of his work began to decline at this point. And I don’t just mean that he started writing sequels, which he had never done before; or began to collaborate, unwisely with Gentry Lee, more wisely with Stephen Baxter and Frederik Pohl. What I mean is that both of these novels, probably the best known and best selling of all of his works, were books in which spectacle outweighed humanity. The novelistic virtues, obvious in books like The Sands of Mars or The City and the Stars, began to lose out, and the ideas and the infodumps, handled more subtly in the earlier novels, suddenly became rather painfully obvious.
To test this notion, I jumped ahead in my reading to the first of his sequels, 2010: Odyssey Two, which appeared in 1982, 14 years after the original novel. The passage of time alone suggests that Clarke was not a natural sequel writer, but I suspect that by the 1980s the massive international success of 2001: A Space Odyssey hung around his neck like an albatross and he faced constant requests for more of the same. In the end I think he gave in with a reluctance that is quite obvious in the book.
For a start, this is not a sequel to his original novel, but rather to the Kubrick film. (And though there was also a film made of 2010, in this instance the film very definitely followed the novel, rather than the two being worked upon in parallel as happened with the original volume.) In my post last month I pointed out some of the innumerable differences between the novel and the movie version of 2001: A Space Odyssey; the movie clearly had greater visual impact, but the novel was more subtle and more consistent. With the new novel, you might as well forget the novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, because in every instance where the two versions differed, the new novel follows the film. But even in this, Clarke is not consistent; there are several points reading the novel when you think, hang on, that doesn’t quite fit with what went before. And this lack of consistency, extraordinarily and revealingly lamentable in so careful a writer as Clarke, just increases in the two further sequels, 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey, both of which contain incidents, plot points and details that directly contradict the earlier volumes. I’m pretty sure that the Odyssey books would have engaged Clarke in a technological sense, because he never misses an opportunity to set up some obscure issue in astrophysics or astronomy and then spend several pages explaining it in detail. But at the same time, I don’t think they engaged him as the would-be humanist writer we saw in several of the early novels. Given that, in both 2001 and Rama, the setting overwhelmed character, indeed 2001 is a virtually characterless work, it is tempting to assume that the lesson he learned from those books was that on this point he didn’t have to try so hard as he once had.
Although to be fair, there is much more attempt at character development in 2010 than there was in 2001. One of the consistent characteristics of Clarke’s work, and something that clearly marks him out from his American contemporaries, is an internationalist view. Written during one of the tense moments in the cold war, at a time when Ronald Reagan was talking about the “evil empire”, this is a novel about frictionless collaboration between Russia and America, and every single Russian character we see is competent, likeable and even heroic. (The film, coming two years later, had to inject cold war tensions into the story to make it more palatable for a Western audience.) And one of the main characters is from India, though at times rather more cliched than was usual for Clarke. What’s more, the eight-person crew of the “Leonov” includes three women, among them the captain, which is something of a novelty for Clarke who seemed to have difficulty seeing women in anything other than traditional domestic roles in his earlier novels.
Even so, in a novel with fewer than 10 major characters, there are still some who are no more than names. There are times, even in the tiny world of the “Leonov”, when someone will be mentioned and you have to take a moment to remember who that might be. Going to the other extreme, Clarke goes to rather excessive lengths to try to humanize Heywood Floyd, little more than a faceless bureaucrat in the first book but now our main viewpoint character. We get lots and lots of information about Floyd: his career, his second marriage (under strain because of his taking part in this expedition to Jupiter), his house in Hawaii, his friendship with his Russian colleagues, and so on and so on and so on. It feels too much, as if Clarke is trying to recreate the swift, neat characterisation we got, for instance, in The Sands of Mars or Childhood’s End, but has lost the ability to tell how much detail is enough. There’s a carelessness about this that comes out also in slips in the writing. For instance one character feels out of control, as he has only ever felt once before when white water rafting; just a few pages later, and without any apparent awareness of the repetition, another character feels out of control, as he has only ever felt once before in a skidding car. Clarke was never the finest literary craftsman, but such slips would never have got through in earlier books.
And then there’s the problem of David Bowman. The whole point of 2001 was the transcendence that Bowman underwent at the end of that novel. But Clarke could never do transcendence. He was fascinated by transcendence, but while he repeatedly took us to the brink in Childhood’s End or “The Nine Billion Names of God” or even 2001, he wisely did not take us beyond that point. The problem is illustrated by the different ways Clarke and Kubrick handled the stargate sequence in 2001. For Kubrick it was a sequence of startling, colour-saturated images, something to be experienced but not necessarily to be understood. But Clarke’s description of the same sequence is full of mysterious images that Bowman struggles to make sense of, and then explains. Where Kubrick takes us on a journey beyond our comprehension, Clarke carefully places his journey in physical and comprehensible space, a place of space ports and alien craft. Kubrick’s version is poetic, Clarke’s is prosaic. But then, Clarke is a prosaic writer, given to patient, sometimes plodding explanations. But transcendence really needs the poetic. So here, the haunting image of the starchild we glimpsed at the end of 2001 becomes an all-too-human figure who, even in non-material form, goes on a tour of scenes from his early life, his former girlfriend, his mother. Something that should fill us with wonder becomes ordinary and pedestrian. I’m not sure, even at the height of his powers, that Clarke would have given such passages the magic they needed, it is so different from his normal literary range. But then, at the height of his powers, Clarke probably wouldn’t even have attempted it; his wonders were always more mechanical than psychological, and he knew it.
Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot of good stuff in 2010. The scene where the Chinese spaceship that has landed on Europa is overcome by the unexpected native life is startlingly good. And the revived Hal, now unexpectedly transformed into a tragic figure, remains as compelling as ever. It is strangely revealing that the most interesting character in either book is non-human. And the scenes of ordinary life aboard the “Leonov” recalls Clarke’s wonderful ability to make life in space seem both strange and everyday. Yet on the whole, this is second division stuff. It’s much better than some of his later sequels, but he’s still not firing on all cylinders.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.